RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — When President Obama arrives here on Friday, he will find the world’s foremost oil producer uncertain of its internal direction, rattled by regional upheaval, and deeply disillusioned about the reliability of its long-time strategic partner in Washington.
His mission to restore trust won’t be easy—not only because of different approaches to the Middle East’s messy turmoil but also because of domestic challenges as Saudi Arabia transitions to a more-complicated, less-isolated society.
Outwardly, this country appears an oasis of calm. But its confidence has been severely shaken as the old authoritarian Arab order has disintegrated, only to be replaced by sectarian tensions, civil wars and newly assertive Islamist groups that look askance at monarchies.
Washington’s acquiescence in the 2011 ousting of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, its reluctance to arm Syrian rebels, and its lukewarm response to Egypt’s 2013 military coup deposing its first democratically elected leader—a coup Riyadh wholeheartedly endorsed—all muddied the bilateral relationship.
Like their government, many ordinary Saudis are baffled by what they perceive as incompetent United States policies. Most remain notably pro-American and, ever polite, apologize before averring their lost faith in America’s leader, variously described in as “feckless” and “addicted to wrong decision-making.”
They are most upset at the tentative dialogue Washington has started with Tehran, Riyadh’s fiercest regional rival. The Saudis should be relieved because success would mean Iran agrees to abandon its nuclear weapon ambitions. But this potential benefit is overshadowed by Saudi fears of what might happen the day after Iran signs a nuclear pact: The United States disengages from the region, allowing Shiite Iran to embolden Shiite communities in the predominantly Sunni-ruled Arab world.
If the president could escape the chandeliered palaces of his hosts, he would glimpse another reality just as important for the American-Saudi relationship: That this country, whose native population is projected to reach more than 28 million by 2030, is in the throes of far-reaching transformation.
He might see this capital city’s sleek new traffic overpasses, its mushrooming skyscrapers and blueprints for its first subway system. He might view a tweet or YouTube video mocking a prince or religious cleric. Supermarkets and lingerie shops would be unlikely stops, so he wouldn’t see another recent evolution: female cashiers and clerks.
Change is unsettling for many Saudis and none more so than at the top. These days, as they sit beneath the ubiquitous pictures of their king, Saudis say they are worried about a potential succession struggle within the royal family. As one university professor explained, “We cannot predict the future, which means we are not stable, which means I don’t feel secure.”
In the last three years, dissidents, human rights advocates and critics of corruption—both Islamist and secular—have become increasingly vocal, especially on social media. A startling example came last July when an online statement contradicted the official Saudi stance supporting the Egyptian coup that ousted President Mohammed Morsi, and condemned the putsch.
In response, the government has grown increasingly repressive, sending well-known activists like Abdullah al-Hamed and Mohammed al-Qahtani, the founders of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, to prison for a decade. And on March 7, it dropped a bombshell by designating the Muslim Brotherhood—which has thousands of Saudi sympathizers and roots in the kingdom going back more than 50 years—as a terrorist organization. The order also outlawed discussion of atheism and many forms of public expression, including online statements.
The predictable response was fear. Mouse clicks rippled across the kingdom as Twitter users deleted the four-finger image denoting support for Egypt’s Brotherhood and its slain followers.
These developments raise a fair question, given recent sales of American weapons to Saudi Arabia worth more than $45 billion: Is Saudi Arabia more threatened in the long run by an external military attack or by domestic unrest?
Washington prefers to whisper criticism in the king’s ear instead of publicly chastising its ally. For the Islamist activist Mohsen al-Awajy this signals that “Americans are caring about the royal family and are very much ignorant with regard to the Saudi people. Now, human rights are in the lowest level in Saudi Arabia and they are not talking about it.”
A nightmare scenario for Washington, one that could bring major rupture to American-Saudi relations, would be having to choose between the royal family and a rebellious citizenry. That scenario is not likely in the next few years. But it would be folly to be complacent. And to secure its long-term domestic future, the Saudi government needs to far more urgently address issues that have drawn mostly talk and baby steps.
It needs to reign in the above-the-law status and financial expectations of an ever-growing royal family; replace Saudis’ sense of entitlement created by an oil-based welfare state with a strong work ethic; tackle corruption, and mobilize a sometimes recalcitrant, lazy bureaucracy in educational and economic reforms that will create jobs and a diversified, globally competitive economy.
Finally, Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy would do well to heed two key messages from the uprisings that have upended the Middle East: Hurried transitions from dictatorships to superficial democracies produce chaos and more grief for the region’s long-suffering residents. And deep-rooted problems left unresolved lead to unpredictable consequences.
Saudi Arabia should implement what it so far refuses to even contemplate: A gradual but genuine sharing of power with the people. This need not be democracy as practiced in the West. But it should allow Saudis genuine participation in transparent decision-making and the freedom to build an independent, just and creative civil society.
In other words, a model society for the 21st century Muslim world.